Bon vivant

“I think I am a good liver,” a French friend recently confided.

“You mean you have a good liver?” I suggested.

“No, I am a good liver. Un bon vivant.”

Well, that is true. He lives well, enjoys the finer things, and seems to truly enjoy whatever he does. And his English is good enough that I knew he didn’t need me to tell him that we don’t say ‘liver’ in that way. He had made his point.

It made me think. I often worry about my liver: I enjoy wine and beer too much for my own good. So I’ll cut back for a few days. Feel healthy, and go back to my old ways.

But do I worry enough about being a ‘good liver’? About enjoying life in every sense, living not just for tomorrow but today? Not even today but now?

I must admit that we have so many ways to enjoy that present moment in France. Not just around the table, or during the traditional ‘apéro’: there is a culture in this country of stopping to smell the roses, or at least enjoy ‘un petit noir’ at a café table, of savouring each change of season. We take holidays. Turn off our phones and other media (although not as often as we should).

But still. I know I focus way too much on my to-do list. Getting things done. Getting stuff. Not making enough new memories. Going off the path to try something different. Living in l’instant présent.

Come to think of it, my friend’s translation is probably closer to the expression: ‘bon viveur‘. As in so many other examples in our two languages, English borrowed from the French to create an expression and give it a whole meaning of its own: not just one who enjoys life, but one who overindulges in its finer things.

Perhaps one really does need a good liver to be a ‘bon vivant’. It certainly helps if you live in France. I suppose that’s why liver detox diets and tips to re-energize this vital organ abound on the French web: drinking rosemary tea, lemon juice and coffee; eating foods rich in antioxidants; avoiding chocolate, cheese and alcohol long enough to allow the liver to regenerate.

Et toi? Are you a good liver?

Faire la grasse mat’

Grasse Mat‘Faire la grasse matinée’ is the delightful way the French have of describing the art of sleeping in – having a lie in, lazing in bed or pillow surfing. Whatever you call it, fat mornings are my absolute favorite thing to do.

La grasse mat as it’s called for short is what you do on Sunday mornings, when you’ve been up all night partying, or when you just want to hide in bed of a morning rather than get up and face the world. Or, if you’re like me, whenever you get the chance.

I don’t actually ‘sleep in’ per se anymore. All I can manage is an extra hour of zzz’s, maybe two, after my usual waking time. Which means that instead of waking up at the crack of my –, as my husband so elegantly puts it, I awake at a time most normal people consider early. He, on the other hand, is capable of sleep-a-thons that go on far beyond my dreams. It’s a gift.

But just because I can’t sleep doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good lie in. With coffee, croissants, books, blogs, writing, to-do lists, travel arrangements – you name it, I do it while lounging in bed. Daily I give thanks to Steve Jobs for the invention of the MacBook Air. After a while I may even nod off again for a little nap. A play within a play as it were. It is the ultimate indulgence.

For a morning person, I certainly seem to spend a lot of time in bed.

How about you? Do you enjoy sleeping in or are you the ‘up and at ’em’ type?

Chez le coiffeur

Chez le coiffeurThere are almost as many beauty parlors in France as there are bakeries. Which says something about where the French have their priorities.

At this time of year, an appointment chez le coiffeur is a must for every self-respecting Frenchwoman – and man. Looking one’s best for the end-of-year holidays is as essential as uncorking a bottle of champagne and preparing a special meal on Christmas Eve.

One of my first French lessons was learning that you go ‘chez le coiffeur’ rather than ‘au coiffeur’. This applies for any shop or service that has a person behind it. For example, you go chez LeClerc but à Carrefour because there is a Leclerc family but no Monsieur or Madame Carrefour.

Another lesson is that hair is not singular in French but plural. So when you talk about your hair it’s les cheveux (not to be confused with les chevaux unless you’re grooming horses rather than hair). Which also explains why my husband will say: “Your hair are nice like that.” (Isn’t he sweet?)

I have passed many long hours chez le coiffeur, simply because my short hair with blonde highlights requires frequent ministrations from my stylist. Those hours spent waiting for the chemicals to do their magic and transform my chatain clair into shiny blonde streaks have allowed me to observe at leisure the inner workings of the French beauty parlor.

Most salons are independently owned and managed by a single hairdresser. Depending on the size of the place, they may have one or several coiffeurs working for them. Only in the bigger chains like Dessange or in high fashion haute coiffure salons do they have a dedicated receptionist. This means that in between shampooing, rinsing, coloring and snipping, your typical hairstylist is also answering the phone, greeting customers, ringing up receipts and serving coffee.

A French hair salon is never dull. Over the white noise of hairdryers and water running, the piped in radio, the hissing of the coffee machine and collective chatter of les dames (the men are usually silent), the place can work up to quite a hubbub.

Should the wait be rather long, there is always the lure of “la presse people.” All French hair salons, no matter how trendy, share the common denominator of offering customers a selection of the latest rags –Paris Match, Voici and Closer along with more fashion-forward offerings like Elle. How else to stay atop of breaking stories like Hollande’s three-wheeled sexploits, Valérie Trierweiller’s revenge lit or Carla Bruni’s desire to be left alone? If there were any doubt about the need for regular visits chez le coiffeur, the extra incentive of the gossip press seals it.

Many salons offer ‘la carte de fidelité’ or customer loyalty cards that give you a reduction or a freebie of some kind after several services. I suppose this is intended keep people coming back, but I never really understood the need. If you have a good hairdresser, one who understands you and doesn’t talk too much, why go anywhere else?

My dad once commented during a visit to France that he had never seen so many bad dye jobs. I think this is because a lot of French women tend to go for more pronounced colors than are typical for North Americans. This was a few years ago when bright henna was all the rage and also the dip-dye craze with a lot of dark root showing beneath blonde tips.

This year I am wondering: where have all the blondes gone? From the TV screens to the fashion pages, brown hair seems to rule the day. Have you noticed this?

I’m not much of one for changing my hairstyle. Aside from a few kinky perms back in the early 80s, I’ve been pretty faithful to my highlighted short cut for the better part of 30 years.

It hasn’t always been easy to find a coiffeur willing to coiffe to my taste. French stylists tend to prefer longer, looser styles. I like these too, on other people. Just not on me.

And just as it’s chic in English to use French words, hair salons here often play with anglais to sound cutting edge. Sometimes with disastrous double entendres in English, like one in our parts called ‘Hair Mess.’ Oops. Think I’ll give that one a miss.

How about you? What’s your latest scoop from the hair salon?

Get lost

Paris directional signsMy phone died today. That is, it ran out of juice. Hardly surprising as it’s an iPhone – you know, the really expensive ones with the crap batteries? Cursing Steve Jobs’ name, I left it behind as I set out to run my errands across the border in Geneva. Flying without a net, as it were. Turned out it was the best thing that could’ve happened.

Traffic in town can be difficult so I decided to park the car by the lake and walk.

At first I felt lost without my usual electronic crutches: Google maps, email, contacts and various other apps. Then I noticed how much lighter I felt. I took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of wet trees in the park. Enjoyed the view of the sailboats bobbing on the lake without worrying about taking a picture.

First stop: dentist appointment. It was just a checkup so I was actually hurrying to get there rather than dragging my feet. I have a tendency to over-optimize my time management, i.e. arrive late. Assuming I knew where it was I had plenty of time, but my memory of the exact location proved, well, inexact. Probably because the last time I went there I had my nose stuck to my iPhone for directions.

There’s nothing like getting lost to help you get to know a place. I’ve lived in this area for a few years now but never seem to be able to map anything. Geneva is not big, but like many cities in these mountainous parts it’s built on multiple levels. Also, there are no right-degree angles. Each intersection has multiple roads shooting off in various directions.

I took a couple of wrong turns and became increasingly disoriented. The two streets that I thought should intersect didn’t seem to, so I had to make an executive decision. Left or right? Always follow your instincts, I thought, and headed left. A few minutes later I had massive doubts, so I did something unprecedented. I asked a nice looking fellow for directions.

Excusez-moi? Do you happen to know how to get to Rue de la Terrassière?

That way, he said, pointing in the opposite direction. Sometimes my instincts kind of suck.

I got there just a few minutes late. My dentist was waiting for me. “Just a checkup?” she asked, sounding disappointed. The last time I’d seen her she’d shot me so full of Novocain I’d looked like a stroke victim the entire day.

The experience made me wonder: How did we manage before? Or were we perhaps smarter without our ‘smart’ phones?

When I first came to France back in the pre-internet days, there was nothing for it but to get out there and get lost. I became quite good at it. Even though I always carried a map, it was so much work stopping, unfolding it and trying to figure out where exactly I was, I usually just kept walking. It was trial and error, and a lot of wear on the feet, but you always reached your destination sooner or later.

After the dentist, I had an hour free so I wandered down to the main shopping area and stopped for a coffee. As I didn’t have my phone, I wasn’t tempted to check for messages. Instead, I sipped my latté by the window and watched the people going by on the street. Came up with the idea for this post and scribbled down a few thoughts.

Then I stopped at the optical store to get my sunglasses adjusted, picked up some things at the pharmacy and went to meet my lunch date. My friend was waiting for me at a café in Eaux-Vives, and we spent a pleasant hour or so catching up over moules-frites.

All in all, I was without my phone for about three hours. Nothing earth shattering happened. No urgent emails or phone calls came in that couldn’t wait until I got home.

I did get lost but I found my way. And I’m pretty sure I’ll remember it next time.

What about you? When was the last time you got lost?

La rentrée: We’re back!

Ready for his first ‘rentrée’: my son, Elliott, in the early 90s.
Ready for his first ‘rentrée’: my son, Elliott, in the early 90s.

It’s been more years that I care to remember since I went back to school. Also quite a few since I took my kids for their first day of école maternelle. But every year in the first week of September, I get that back-to-school buzz. It feels like the real start of the year.

‘La rentrée des classes’ heralds much more than just the start of a new school year in France. It’s the rentrée for a whole new schedule of radio and television programs, sporting activities and holidays. It’s also the return of political infighting, strikes and tax bills. We got off to a running start this year, with the entire government under Manuel Valls resigning at the end of August.

The school calendar, set by l’Education Nationale, provides the structure and framework for French life.

French school calendar 2014-2015
French school calendar 2014-2015

France is divided into 3 zones: A, B, and C. This is supposed to help control the chaos on the roads when everyone heads for the ski slopes in February. I like being in zone A, mostly because Paris is in zone C. That means fewer traffic jams for us, although we still get stuck in the stream of vacationers on their way to and from their holiday destinations.

Spreading out the school breaks helps ensure a profitable few months for the resorts during ‘les petites vacances’ in the fall, winter and spring. The year-end break at Christmas and ‘les grandes vacances‘ in the summer are the same for all.

The French returned in droves from summer vacation last weekend. There are always the inevitable ‘tardataires’ (late-comers) who must stay away until the last possible moment, but the poor weather this year added to their number as people delayed their departure in hopes of sunnier skies.

The lineups at les grandes surfaces (shopping centers) were long as parents jockeyed to get that last item for the long list of school supplies. They don’t really have to have everything on the first day, of course, but we all have such a sense of fear and awe for the educational system in this country that we daren’t send our children to school without that heavy cartable loaded down with every item the teacher has indicated will be essential for the school year. We are talking about hundreds of sheets of loose leaf paper, whose squares must be of a defined size and color, a specified number of pens and pencils and rulers and erasers and notebooks of various types. In primary school you must add gym slippers and coveralls for art class. Pity the poor parents desperately seeking to satisfy the list. I remember it well. And am feeling just a tad…nostalgic for those lost years.

So today I will go to the local papéterie (paper shop) and buy myself several of my favorite writing tools: fine-point pens and sharp pencils and bright notebooks. Just for old time’s sake.

What’s your fondest memory of going back to school? Or was it rather ‘school’s out for summer?’